Building a Fantasy Campaign World: Introduction
This is the start of a new series discussing world building and the creation of campaign settings.
With 4th Edition winding down and many new campaigns looming on the horizon, ready to start when 5th Edition officially launches (or there’s enough playtesting material) I imagine many DMs are thinking about where they’ll set their campaign, what world they want to play in, and the nuances of creating their own campaign setting.
This blog series is designed to offer advice and suggestions on the art of world building. Each blog will discuss an element of design, and I’ll also demonstrate the advice by loosely designing a brand new world just for this blog.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
The First Step
When making a campaign world, Step 0 is settling on your level of complexity: how much time and effort you want to put into making the world.
The easiest way to create a world is Bottom-Up design. This is beginning with a town or small locale region and expanding outward as the need arises. The 4th Edition setting-ette of Nentir Vale is a good example of this, with a handful of small settlements in a (relatively) small area with a variety of terrain. The campaign can spend a number of levels there (or the entire heroic tier) before moving outward. If the campaign needs there to be a major metropolis at the end of the Trade Road then there can be said local capital a few days ride away. If instead the campaign needs a barren wasteland there, then the DM can add that instead. The world is governed by the needs of the campaign and story.
One of the major strengths of a Bottom-Up world – other than the ease on the DM – is the freedom it allows the players. The DM should encourage players to add elements to the world, especially through their back-story. Look at the first Star Wars movie (Episode IV: A New Hope) where Obiwan “old Ben” Kenobi makes a throw-away reference to the “Clone Wars”. Irrelevant to that plot and the entire trilogy, this was such an interesting and heavy bit of world building that it drove the following prequels. Another example is Escape from New York where someone rhetorically asks Snake “You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?” In a Bottom-Up world, the players can add those same elements. The fighter might have “survived the Battle of Blightwater Gorge” while the wizard “saw the dragon-fog burn Etherguard to ash.” and the rogue was born in “the slums in the Shadow of the Tower.” They might have some idea what it means, or it might be up to the DM to add meaning and depth to these otherwise throw-away lines.
The problem with Bottom-Down worlds is the potential for illogical design, and the need for DMs to continually improvise. It does not matter if you’re off your game, hung over, and weary after a long work week with mandatory overtime; if your players want to venture south into uncharted territory you’d better think-up some territory to chart. The illogical design comes hand-in-hand with the spontaneous placement of designs. Bottom-Up worlds are unlikely to be ecologically viable, with deserts too close to fertile farmland and rivers flowing uphill because the story needed a sea in the wrong place, or the terrifying expansionist military nation sharing a border with the untamed wilderness populated by sparse numbers of agrarian farmers armed with scornful looks and dirt clods.
The opposite number of a Bottom-Up world is a Top-Down world. In this kind of world, the DM plans out the world in greater detail from the onset of the campaign. They might still start in a small region, but they’ve planned out the surrounding areas, know the history of the world, and could potentially start the campaign in a number of places. The DM of this kind of world would know that north of Nentir is the Winterbole Forest that stretches for hundreds of miles north until it reaches the Dawnforge mountains. To the east of the vale is Mithralfast and the fallen nation of Vor Rukoth, both set on the Dragondawn Coast across from the nation of Karkoth and its seven kings.
In practice, most published campaign settings are Top-Down worlds.
Top-Down worlds are a lot more work. While this is fine if you enjoy world building and don’t mind spending days creating nations or places your players are unlikely to ever see (I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend myself), so it isn’t the most effective use of time. If your game is a week away, unless you’re unemployed fast typist with severe insomnia and an energy drink addiction, you probably shouldn’t start a Top-Down world. But, with 5th Edition still almost two years away from launch, there’s certainly time to start making a world.
One of the major strengths of Top-Down worlds is a little more entry level freedom for players. In a Bottom-Up world there’s more freedom later on, but where they’re starting is likely established. In a Top-Down campaign, the starting place for the campaign is less set in stone, and the DM can offer a few possible locations for the campaign.
Players can also feel a little more a part of the world; instead of adding elements to their character which can be integrated into the setting, PCs can have world elements influence their character. They might have a tie to a major location, or Name NPC, or have aspirations of joining a prestigious organization. How many rookie Dragonlance Player Characters have started with the desire to become a Wizard of High Sorcerer or to join the Knighthood? It’s an instant character motivation.
Getting this information across to players can be tricky, so writing a Player’s Guide is a good idea, as is providing a campaign Wiki for the interested. But don’t make either too long. Players will seldom read your Wiki, regardless of how awesome you make it.
There’s also a middle ground approach. You start with a simple Top-Down design, sketching out the major history, regions, nations, and the like but leave vast swaths of the land sparsely detailed, with little more than a one-sentence description (a sound bite). The starting nation receives much more detail, and the starting area receiving the most. Think of it like a dartboard; the middle starting area (the bulls eye) is very well detailed but the as you move farther from the start (onto next ring) details become lighter, and farther from that (the third ring) there’s little more than the barebones description.
This has much of the weaknesses of both, with the starting area being more locked in (like a Bottom-Up world) but there’s still some time consuming prep (like a Top-Down world), but is still reasonably fast to make and has enough open areas for players to fill with their own details and ideas.
This is likely the approach I’ll be taking with my example world.
A little on me here.
I love world building. I love campaign settings. I love reading new world guides and seeing what creators did with familiar races and classes. I love doodling continents and maps, and was drawing maps for fantasy worlds as young as twelve – often for bad fantasy stories I was writing.
When I first started playing D&D (2nd Edition) I quickly created a fantasy world for my campaigns, and ran at least two groups through adventures there. Whenever I get really bored and need a project, I tend to brainstorm or think of new fantasy worlds. Mostly just as thought experiments now.
I wrote about my most recent campaign world in an earlier, unfocused series of blogs on world building. There’s eight or so posts on the WotC site, scattered throughout my first year of blogging: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Don’t feel pressured to read those; I’ll reiterate all the key points when I feel the need.
I started the campaign setting mentioned above at the tail end of 2e – again, as the result of boredom – but I was quickly forced to update it to 3e. When 4e launched I completely reimagined the world for that edition, changing and refocusing much of the world. (For the curious with too much free time, a chunk of what I wrote ended up on my Obsidian Portal wiki although I quickly grew lazy and stopped updating the adventure log).
Altogether I’ve created three different fully fleshed-out campaign worlds (and completely reimagined two of those over the years) I’m still likely behind the likes of Ed Greenwood and Rich Burlew. But I feel confident enough to do this series. Plus it’s a lovely chance to write in a much more positive tone. When writing advice pieces, you do have to focus on the problem areas where advice is needed, which can come off as overly negative.
In addition to my own work, I’m quite fond of a larger a number of published worlds. I enjoy thinking of potential campaigns and reading about other cultures and histories; I minored in Anthropology in University, so this passion for information on cultures, societies, and history is broader than just D&D. But I love the structure and thought that only comes with artificial history (my major was in English), the ability to add that perfect storm of events that causes disaster or the small events rippling outward to topple empires .
My first D&D world was Dragonlance, which helped get me into gaming through the novels. However, the first campaign setting I bought was Ravenloft, which remains my personal favourite. For the first time in years I’m running a campaign set in Ravenloft and loving every second of it.
I spent a number of years adventuring through the Forgotten Realms as the embittered (and later alcoholic) paladin Blade, so that world has a strong nostalgic appeal to me, and I ran a one-on-one Realms campaign for some time. I have a soft spot for Dark Sun and Eberron despite never having run a game in either. I have no ideas for Dark Sun adventures. None. But the world is cool. And after I got over my initial illogical and reactionary hate for Eberron (yeah… I foolishly bought into the silly “halflings on dinosaurs?!” hate) I found the actually setting rather fun. It’s a great example of how to design a setting with numerous plots and regions for adventure; you could run a dozen campaigns in Eberronand seldom overlap in themes and place save the underlying Eberron-isms.
I also adore the 3PP d20 world of Midnight which still has the best hook of any campaign setting ever. I need to run a campaign there sometime. But at the rate I’m going, that’ll be for 6e…
And that’s me.
Next time I’ll write about your world’s hook, the needed concept for your concept world.
A compilation of this on Worldbuilding Blog Series, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding, is now available. The blogs have been updated, edited, and expanded, so the final book features almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.
Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is available in Print on Demand and electronically. The electronic copy is available on Kobo, Kindle, and DriveThurRPG. The PoD copy is available on Createspace and Amazon.
Learn how to: sculpt a continent, design a nation, plan a city or village, create a Pantheon, and build your world! Designed for use by fantasy tabletop role-playing gamers (especially those using the world’s oldest RPG system) but also useful for novelists, creative types, and people with too much free time.
The original blogs aren’t going anywhere, and will remain available for free on the website indefinitely. But if you want an offline or improved version (or support me spending over a year of my life typing away advice) feel free to purchase a copy and earn my enduring gratitude.